A Freakish Whiteness: The Circassian Lady and the Caucasian Fantasy

by Gre­go­ry Fried
Pub­lished March 15, 2013*

When I first stum­bled across the pho­to­graph repro­duced below, over fif­teen years ago at an antique show, it struck me as ludi­crous, inex­plic­a­ble, and yet also some­how haunt­ing. Per­haps it was the jux­ta­po­si­tion of the young woman’s abstract­ed gaze with the absurd­ly wild mass of hair flam­ing around her head. I found a name, inscribed in pen­cil more than 130 years ago on the back of the pho­to­graph, “Zublia Aggolia,” and a title, “Cir­cass­ian Lady.” Even today, I still know noth­ing about Zublia her­self apart from her name, and even that is not what it seems. Despite that, her por­trait has tak­en me down a path of dis­cov­ery whose con­nec­tions I would have nev­er guessed.

Moore Broth­ers, “Zublia Aggolia,” carte-de-vis­ite, front and reverse (cir­ca 1870), col­lec­tion of the author.

Not that I am the first to learn about these por­traits of women like Zublia; schol­ars such as Lin­da Frost have cleared the path to make sense of them in a much broad­er nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry con­text of gen­der and racial rep­re­sen­ta­tion. What I know now is that the woman depict­ed here fits the mod­el of a kind of per­formed per­son­al­i­ty dubbed the “Cir­cass­ian Lady” or the “Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty” in mid-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. What I learned about what is essen­tial­ly a cir­cus iden­ti­ty I find fas­ci­nat­ing because of what it tells us about how nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cans treat­ed race, even the white race, as a spec­ta­cle, as a per­formed iden­ti­ty that might not be what it seemed. As a type, the Cir­cass­ian Lady became quite famil­iar in the Unit­ed States, espe­cial­ly after the mid-1860s, when var­i­ous per­form­ers in cir­cus sideshows began play­ing this role. “Zublia Aggolia” was almost cer­tain­ly a stage name, giv­en that prob­a­bly none of the women per­form­ing this part were actu­al Cir­cas­sians, a peo­ple from the Cau­ca­sus region in what is now mod­ern Rus­sia.

Why the “Cir­cass­ian Lady” as the title for this par­tic­u­lar type of cir­cus per­former? The fact is that the “Cir­cass­ian Lady” or the “Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty” was a sta­ple of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry sideshows, but not the “Cir­cass­ian Gen­tle­man.” With the occa­sion­al excep­tion of a “Cir­cass­ian” child (see illus­tra­tion below), all the pho­tographs we find of sideshow Cir­cas­sians are of women. Why?

Mak­er unknown, “Cir­cass­ian” child, carte-de-vis­ite (cir­ca 1865), col­lec­tion of the author.

The first thing to con­sid­er is the des­ig­na­tion “Cir­cass­ian” itself. Cir­cas­sia is a moun­tain­ous region on the north­east shore of the Black Sea in the Cau­ca­sus (see the map below, with the close-up of Cir­cas­sia in green).

Bradford_Map_close-up copy
Thomas Gamaliel Brad­ford, “Map of Cau­casian Coun­tries and Turkey in Asia” (1835), Wikipedia Com­mons.

When Zublias pho­to­graph was tak­en, around 1870, Cir­cas­sia had long been a bat­tle­ground between the Rus­sians to its north and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire to the south, after Rus­sia invad­ed the Cau­ca­sus, start­ing in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. The Cir­cas­sians were final­ly defeat­ed in 1864, and the Rus­sians bru­tal­ly dis­persed hun­dreds of thou­sands of them from their native land. It is a cru­el­ly iron­ic twist of his­to­ry that the “Cir­cass­ian Lady” became an invent­ed trope of cir­cus spec­ta­cle in the Unit­ed States at pre­cise­ly the time that the actu­al Cir­cas­sians were suf­fer­ing eth­nic cleans­ing in their homeland—by some esti­mates, over six hun­dred thou­sand Cir­cas­sians died in the Russ­ian cam­paign to expel them from the region. That irony has res­o­nance even now. In 2014, the Cir­cass­ian dias­po­ra across the world sought to use the host­ing of the Olympic Games in Sochi, where the Rus­sians cel­e­brat­ed their vic­to­ry over the Cir­cas­sians in 1864, as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to protest the 150th anniver­sary of what some have called the first geno­cide in mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry.

Cir­cas­sians com­mem­o­rate the ban­ish­ment of the Cir­cas­sians from Rus­sia in Tak­sim, İstan­bul, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.

It is all the more remark­able then that for near­ly a cen­tu­ry before their con­quest and dis­per­sal, the Cir­cas­sians had been an object of Euro­pean fas­ci­na­tion. In 1775, the Ger­man nat­u­ral­ist Johann Friedrich Blu­men­bach (1752–1840) pub­lished On the Nat­ur­al Vari­ety of Mankind, a work that became one of the most influ­en­tial texts in the emerg­ing Euro­pean sci­ence of race. Blu­men­bach was a spe­cial­ist in com­par­a­tive anato­my, and he ini­ti­at­ed the divi­sion of human beings into five dis­tinct “races” defined by region and col­or: the Cau­casian or “white” race, the Mon­go­lian or “yel­low” race, the Malayan or “brown” race, the Ethiopi­an or “black” race, and the Amer­i­can or “red” race.


Illus­tra­tion of skulls of the five races, from On the Nat­ur­al Vari­ety of Mankind, Wikipedia Com­mons; the mid­dle skull is labeled fem­i­nae Geor­gianae, Geor­gian female, “Geor­gian” being anoth­er name for Cau­casian.

It is a tes­ti­mo­ny to the influ­ence of Blu­men­bach that we still use the term “Cau­casian” to sig­ni­fy “white” peo­ple, and of course the col­or scheme of white, yel­low, brown, black, and red still has cur­ren­cy, too, although in altered forms. This is the case despite the fact that con­tem­po­rary bio­log­i­cal sci­ence has com­plete­ly dis­cred­it­ed Blumenbach’s the­o­ry of the ori­gins and cat­e­gories of human beings.

Accord­ing to Blu­men­bach, the white race orig­i­nat­ed in the Cau­ca­sus region, and all oth­er human races derived from this orig­i­nal source as degen­er­a­tions of the Cau­casian, the high­est type. Here is the full con­text from Blumenbach’s On the Nat­ur­al Vari­ety of Mankind:

Cau­casian vari­ety. I have tak­en the name of this vari­ety from Mount Cau­ca­sus, both because its neigh­bor­hood, and espe­cial­ly its south­ern slope, pro­duces the most beau­ti­ful race of men, I mean the Geor­gian (fn 1); and because all phys­i­o­log­i­cal rea­sons con­verge to this, that in that region, if any­where, it seems we ought with the great­est prob­a­bil­i­ty to place the autochthones of mankind. For in the first place, that stock dis­plays, as we have seen (s. 62), the most beau­ti­ful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the oth­ers diverge by most easy gra­da­tions on both sides to the two ulti­mate extremes (that is, on the one side the Mon­go­lian, on the oth­er the Ethiopi­an). Besides, it is white in colour, which we may fair­ly assume to have been the prim­i­tive colour of mankind, since, as we have shown above (s. 45), it is very easy for that to degen­er­ate into brown, but very much more dif­fi­cult for dark to become white, when the secre­tion of pre­cip­i­ta­tion of this car­bona­ceous pig­ment (s. 44) has once deeply struck root.

Blu­men­bach adds this foot­note to the word “Geor­gian” in the pas­sage above:

From a cloud of eye-wit­ness­es it is enough to quote a clas­si­cal one, Jo. Chardin, T. I. p. m. 171.“The blood of Geor­gia is the best of the East, and per­haps in the world. I have not observed a sin­gle ugly face in that coun­try, in either sex; but I have seen angel­i­cal ones. Nature has there lav­ished upon the women beau­ties which are not to be seen else­where. I con­sid­er it to be impos­si­ble to look at them with­out lov­ing them. It would be impos­si­ble to paint more charm­ing vis­ages, or bet­ter fig­ures, than those of the Geor­gians” (Blu­men­bach, Anthro­po­log­i­cal Trea­tis­es, 269).

In Blumenbach’s racial typol­o­gy, then, the purest, most orig­i­nal “white” peo­ple came from the Cau­ca­sus region. Already in his 1775 text, Blu­men­bach specif­i­cal­ly iden­ti­fied the Cir­cass­ian women among the peo­ples of the Cau­ca­sus as the sin­gle most beau­ti­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tives of this pure and pri­mor­dial “Cau­casian” type: “Take, of all who bear the name of man, a man and a woman most wide­ly dif­fer­ent from each oth­er; let the one be a most beau­ti­ful Cir­cass­ian woman and the oth­er an African born in Guinea, as black and ugly as pos­si­ble” (Blu­men­bach, Anthro­po­log­i­cal Trea­tis­es, 363). In this pas­sage, Blu­men­bach is dis­cussing the fact that all human beings form part of the same species, because they can repro­duce togeth­er, despite the exter­nal dif­fer­ences of appear­ance. But his off­hand val­oriza­tion of the Cir­cass­ian woman as the ide­al of white­ness and the Guinean man as the anti-ide­al of black­ness could not be more evi­dent; while he holds that they form part of the same species, he clear­ly con­sid­ers the Guinean man a devo­lu­tion from the Cir­cass­ian type, itself sup­pos­ed­ly the most per­fect form of the Cau­casian.

One hun­dred years lat­er, around 1870, this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Cir­cass­ian and Cau­casian as the most per­fect rep­re­sen­ta­tives of white­ness had tak­en hold of the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion in the Unit­ed States. The image below presents a woman of the “Cir­cass­ian” style who is labeled a “Cau­casian”; bear in mind that all these titles are fic­tions applied to a per­son per­form­ing an imag­ined type:

Abra­ham Bog­a­r­dus, “Cau­casian Girl,” carte-de-vis­ite, front and reverse (cir­ca 1865), col­lec­tion of the author.

Apart from the influ­ence of the new sci­ence of race, anoth­er cause for this fas­ci­na­tion with Cir­cas­sians was that, start­ing in the mid-1700s, it had become a mat­ter of dra­mat­ic and roman­tic lore that beau­ti­ful Cir­cass­ian women were being sold in the slave mar­kets of Istan­bul and through­out the Ottoman Empire, to serve in the harems of the sul­tan and oth­er poten­tates as the most desir­able beau­ties of the realm. Lord Byron’s epic poem, Don Juan (1818–1824), con­tains this telling pas­sage (Can­to IV, vers­es 114 and 115) about a slave mar­ket in Istan­bul:

     But to the narrative:—The vessel bound
       With slaves to sell off in the capital,
     After the usual process, might be found
       At anchor under the seraglio wall;
     Her cargo, from the plague being safe and sound,
       Were landed in the market, one and all,
     And there with Georgians, Russians, and Circassians,
       Bought up for different purposes and passions.

     Some went off dearly; fifteen hundred dollars
       For one Circassian, a sweet girl, were given,
     Warranted virgin; beauty's brightest colours
       Had deck'd her out in all the hues of heaven:
     Her sale sent home some disappointed bawlers,
       Who bade on till the hundreds reach'd eleven;
     But when the offer went beyond, they knew
      'T was for the Sultan, and at once withdrew.

The leg­end of the white “Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty” being sold into sex­u­al slav­ery had tak­en on such a life of its own that in the ear­ly 1860s P. T. Bar­num, the great Amer­i­can show­man and pro­mot­er of hokum, con­ceived the idea of buy­ing a Cir­cass­ian woman out of cap­tiv­i­ty in Turkey to exhib­it in his wild­ly suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can Muse­um in New York City. In a let­ter of May 1864, Bar­num autho­rized his agent, John Green­wood Jr., to spend up to $5,000 in gold each (a vast sum in that day) for two Cir­cass­ian beau­ties if Green­wood could suc­cess­ful­ly infil­trate the slave mar­kets of Istan­bul to buy them with­out being detect­ed as a West­ern­er.

Green­wood failed in his attempt, but that did not stop Bar­num, who had no qualms about find­ing some­one who could “pass” as Cir­cass­ian to put on exhi­bi­tion along with oth­er remark­able indi­vid­u­als in his sideshow, such as Tom Thumb. Lat­er in 1864, Bar­num put on show some­one he dubbed “Zalum­ma Agra” (“Star of the East”), a young woman who had come to his oper­a­tion seek­ing work whom he dressed up in the invent­ed cos­tume  that became the mod­el for the “Cir­cass­ian Ladies” who sub­se­quent­ly sprang up in cir­cus sideshows all over the coun­try. Zalum­ma was the first of sev­er­al “Cir­cas­sians” in Barnum’s shows, and even her name was his inven­tion. The gallery below presents sev­er­al views of Zalum­ma (with the name var­i­ous­ly spelled); a por­trait of anoth­er of Barnum’s Cir­cas­sians, Zoe Meleke (a made-up name again); and a group por­trait of the “freaks” in Barnum’s Cir­cus; note that all are white, includ­ing the “whitest” of the white, albi­nos:

H. R. Doane, “Zaluma Agra, Star of the East,” cartes-de-vis­ite, two views (cir­ca 1865), col­lec­tion of Greg French.
E. & H. T. Antho­ny, “Zaluma Agra, The Star of the East, Now on exhi­bi­tion at Barnum’s Muse­um” cartes-de-vis­ite, front and reverse, col­lec­tion of Greg French (left) and the author (right). The US Inter­nal Rev­enue stamps on the back of each image were required on pho­tographs by law, from August 1864 to August 1866, to raise funds for the Civ­il War. Each is can­celed with a stamp that reads “Barnum’s Muse­um” and dat­ed April 26, 1866 (left) and Decem­ber 5, 1865 (right).
Mak­er unknown, inscribed on reverse “Zoe Meleke, Cir­cass­ian Lady, Born in Asia Minor,” carte-de-vis­ite, front and reverse (cir­ca 1865), col­lec­tion of Greg French.
Mak­er unknown, Barnum’s Cir­cus, carte-de-vis­ite, front and reverse (cir­ca 1865), col­lec­tion of Greg French.

And so Bar­num invent­ed the “Cir­cass­ian Lady,” or some­times the “Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty,” as a sideshow per­former of a par­tic­u­lar kind. The type includ­ed a num­ber of key fea­tures: the woman must be pret­ty, or even beau­ti­ful, by Vic­to­ri­an stan­dards; she would wear exot­ic cloth­ing, gen­er­al­ly more reveal­ing than that worn by Euro­pean and Amer­i­can woman of that era; she might dis­play strik­ing jew­el­ry and oth­er orna­ments, such as strings of pearls or rich­ly embroi­dered clothes. And the most telling fea­ture of all: the big hair. This extra­or­di­nary hair­do was entire­ly Barnum’s inven­tion, but it stuck as one of the defin­ing mark­ers of the “Cir­cass­ian” woman, no mat­ter what cir­cus or sideshow put a Cir­cass­ian per­former on the stage: a huge mass of hair, washed in beer and teased to a frizzy cloud resem­bling what might remind some­one today of an Afro from the 1960s or 1970s. What is espe­cial­ly iron­ic is the tax stamp on the back of the por­trait of Zulum­ma Agra: these stamps raised rev­enues for the Fed­er­al troops fight­ing in the Civ­il War, and yet the image trad­ed in part  on their tit­il­lat­ing sug­ges­tion of white women sold into slav­ery. It is worth under­lin­ing that this cos­tume and hair had noth­ing to do with how actu­al Cir­cass­ian women looked, as the illus­tra­tions below indi­cate.


Mak­er unknown, Cir­cass­ian wife and hus­band, albu­men pho­to­graph (cir­ca 1865).
Edmund Spencer, Cir­cass­ian Lady (1855), Wikipedia Com­mons.

The carte-de-vis­ite of Zublia Aggolia dis­plays the preva­lent fea­tures of a “Cir­cass­ian” por­trait. Cards like this were sold at cir­cus­es and shows and by pro­mot­ers, the prof­its shared by the per­form­ers and the show own­ers. She wears a jew­eled cru­ci­fix and pearl-stud­ded, low-cut dress, and the char­ac­ter­is­tic hair­style is unmis­tak­able.

So now we are in a bet­ter posi­tion to answer our ques­tion: Why “Cir­cass­ian Ladies” but not “Cir­cass­ian Gen­tle­men”?

As Lin­da Frost has sug­gest­ed, the “Cir­cass­ian” woman occu­pied a very pecu­liar place in the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry imag­i­na­tion, a place that chal­lenged the dom­i­nant clas­si­fi­ca­tions of race, gen­der, and sex­u­al­i­ty. Because this strange posi­tion enticed nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry view­ers to trans­gress these cat­e­gories, at least in their imag­i­na­tions while view­ing the sideshow or in pri­vate while gaz­ing at a pho­to­graph­ic por­trait, the nat­ur­al place for this kind of per­for­mance was the strange and yet pro­tect­ed and cir­cum­scribed space of the freak show, pio­neered so effec­tive­ly by P. T. Bar­num him­self.

First of all, we have to take into account that the myth of the Cir­cass­ian includ­ed sev­er­al inter­sect­ing ele­ments of over­whelm­ing inter­est, if not fix­a­tion, for nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry white Amer­i­cans: race, slav­ery, and ideals of fem­i­nine virtue, beau­ty, and sex­u­al­i­ty. Add to this heady brew the tinc­ture of Ori­en­tal­ism that Edward Said has dis­sect­ed as a fea­ture of Euro­pean colo­nial imag­i­na­tion, and we have in the Cir­cass­ian Lady an arche­type at the inter­sec­tion of mul­ti­ple Vic­to­ri­an obses­sions, how­ev­er covert. The Ori­en­tal­ist fan­ta­sy, espe­cial­ly the imag­in­ing of the harem and the seraglio, allowed Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans to project their sub­ter­ranean pruri­ence onto a safe­ly dis­tant world.

The leg­end of the Cir­cass­ian woman involved a provoca­tive com­po­nent for white Amer­i­cans: the idea that the Cir­cas­sians were the most pri­mor­dial form of the white race, and there­fore also the purest and most beau­ti­ful exem­plars of white­ness, espe­cial­ly their women; yet at the same time, these Cir­cass­ian women were sub­ject to the slave trade of the Ottoman Empire. The idea that a white woman might be sold into slav­ery, and espe­cial­ly sold into a slav­ery that marked her as a sex­u­al object in a potentate’s harem, was a mat­ter of both moral hor­ror and trans­gres­sive fas­ci­na­tion to the white imag­i­na­tion.

That potent com­bi­na­tion of hor­ror and fas­ci­na­tion was evi­dent at least as ear­ly as the dis­play of Hiram Powers’s stat­ue The Greek Slave at the Great Exhi­bi­tion in Lon­don in 1845 and then again in 1851. Pow­ers was an Amer­i­can sculp­tor who worked in Flo­rence, and his depic­tion of a white woman, stripped naked with only chains cov­er­ing her gen­i­tals, about to be sold in a Turk­ish slave mar­ket, cre­at­ed a sen­sa­tion as well as a tremen­dous con­tro­ver­sy because of her nudi­ty, which Pow­ers intend­ed as an ide­al form, a sym­bol of her pure Chris­t­ian virtue in the face of hea­then sub­ju­ga­tion.

L. Pow­ers, The Greek Slave by Hiram Pow­ers, carte-de-vis­ite (cir­ca 1865), front and reverse, col­lec­tion of Greg French.

Greece was on the public’s mind at the time, espe­cial­ly the minds of roman­tics and ide­al­ists, for the coun­try had fought a suc­cess­ful war of inde­pen­dence from the Ottoman Empire from 1821 to 1830. Euro­peans had sym­pa­thized with Greece not only for its being the font of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion and its ide­al of free­dom but also for its resis­tance as a Chris­t­ian nation against the Mus­lim Ottomans. As such, Greece became a sym­bol of repub­li­can lib­er­ty against cor­rupt tyran­ny. Of course, back in Powers’s Amer­i­can home­land, what was most on the public’s mind when the sculp­ture went on tour there was the Com­pro­mise of 1850, includ­ing the Fugi­tive Slave Act. In the Amer­i­can con­text, that meant that human beings seek­ing to escape from their own form of very real enslave­ment could expect their lib­er­ty to be respect­ed nowhere in the nation, not even in the sup­pos­ed­ly free states of the North.  If the inter­lock­ing themes of slav­ery, white­ness, Chris­tian­i­ty, and free­dom in Powers’s Greek Slave res­onat­ed so deeply in the Unit­ed States, it was because it hit home as a kind of por­trait in racial neg­a­tive of the tight­en­ing noose of slav­ery at home.  The stat­ue sealed Powers’s fame, despite the debates that the stat­ue aroused.

Indeed, arousal was pre­cise­ly the point of con­tention. Pow­ers insist­ed that the naked­ness depict­ed was not offen­sive but rather ele­vat­ing, that it was no incite­ment to lust but rather an instance of what he called an “ide­al type,” a form that tran­scends the human body and sym­bol­izes pure prin­ci­ples of human virtue. In the case of The Greek Slave, he meant to por­tray a white Chris­t­ian woman fac­ing a ter­ri­ble fate with faith, mod­esty, and for­ti­tude. But there was no mis­tak­ing the mean­ing of that fate, even then: as a slave, her body would be at the dis­pos­al of her buy­er, and it was pre­cise­ly this fact that would be star­ing the statue’s view­ers in the face as they stared, in turn, at her white gran­ite body—or the many pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tions of that body.

The idea of a woman being at the sex­u­al mer­cy of her own­er was not for­eign to the imag­i­na­tion of the white pub­lic at the time in the Unit­ed States, but Powers’s stat­ue of a naked white woman allud­ed only indi­rect­ly (and per­haps for that rea­son in the only way then pub­licly pos­si­ble) to the fate of many enslaved black women: it was a well-known but large­ly unspo­ken fact that slave own­ers in the Unit­ed States often entered into sex­u­al rela­tion­ships with their enslaved women, rela­tion­ships that involved a range of coer­cion, almost all of which we would clas­si­fy as rape today. Thomas Jef­fer­son him­self had sired chil­dren with his slave Sal­ly Hem­ings, her­self the child of an enslaved moth­er and a white master—and the half sis­ter of Jefferson’s deceased wife. What­ev­er we might say about the com­plex­i­ties of their par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship, mass rape was a defin­ing fea­ture of the his­to­ry of slav­ery in the Unit­ed States.

As anoth­er exam­ple, in 1868, the Eng­lish sculp­tor John Bell pro­duced a sculp­ture enti­tled The Octoroon. Clear­ly influ­enced by Powers’s The Greek Slave, Bell’s stat­ue depicts an octoroon, that is, a per­son of one-eighth African ances­try, as a naked woman in shack­les, per­haps await­ing the auc­tion block, her mod­esty pro­tect­ed only by her inor­di­nate­ly long hair. It is worth under­lin­ing this use of hair as a mark­er of for­bid­den sex­u­al­i­ty, for it turns up again with the Cir­cass­ian Ladies, but in a more sub­tle form. Pho­to­graph­ic repro­duc­tions of Bell’s stat­ue cir­cu­lat­ed on stere­oview cards in the Unit­ed States (see below), which allowed view­ers to get a three-dimen­sion­al sense of the fig­ure.

Mak­er unknown, The Octoroon by John Bell, stere­oview card (cir­ca 1870), col­lec­tion of the author. Note: It is pos­si­ble for some view­ers to see this image in 3-D. To try this your­self, allow your eyes to cross slight­ly, cre­at­ing two images in your field of vision; then allow the images to align so that the right frame of one and the left frame of the oth­er super­im­pose, pre­sent­ing a 3-D image.

This theme repli­cat­ed itself in fic­tion, too. For exam­ple, in 1859, a play by Dion Bouci­cault called The Octoroon opened in Lon­don. The play tells the sto­ry of Zoe, the octoroon of the title. Zoe looks white and lives free on a plan­ta­tion in the Amer­i­can South. The white nephew of the plan­ta­tion own­er falls in love with Zoe and seeks to mar­ry her, even after she tells him the truth of her ances­try. In the British ver­sion, they do mar­ry, despite the taboo (and the laws) against mis­ce­gena­tion, and they live out their lives togeth­er, but not before fend­ing off anoth­er man who attempts to see her enslaved as a declared black woman so that he can buy her as his own mis­tress. The play was a huge hit in Eng­land, but when it came to the Unit­ed States, the end­ing changed: there is no mar­riage, and Zoe dies along with her lover in a final fiery cat­a­clysm. For an Amer­i­can audi­ence both mor­bid­ly fas­ci­nat­ed and pan­icked by the prospect of race mix­ing, trans­gres­sion of the taboo could go only so far before being sealed with dis­as­ter.

The sup­pos­ed­ly sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly estab­lished puri­ty of the Cir­cass­ian Ladies’ white­ness played on a white audience’s need for reas­sur­ance about its iden­ti­ty in a world where octoroons like Zoe might dare to cross the col­or line. And yet the image of the Cir­cass­ian Lady played into an already well-estab­lished, if illic­it and sub­ver­sive, fan­ta­sy of white women (or at least a white-seem­ing woman) sub­ject­ed as slaves to the sex­u­al whims of real or poten­tial own­ers; after all, the sideshow allure of the Cir­cass­ian Beau­ties was that they might well have end­ed up as slaves in a harem. This was an explo­sive idea because it raised ques­tions about the assump­tions that white peo­ple in the Unit­ed States might have held about the sup­pos­ed­ly nat­ur­al invi­o­la­bil­i­ty of the white race when it came to both sub­mit­ting to slav­ery and sur­ren­der­ing sex­u­al virtue: here were white women, sup­pos­ed­ly from the stock of the purest and most beau­ti­ful white women in the world, who were nev­er­the­less no longer able to enjoy the cer­tain­ty of free­dom to which their race, at least in the Unit­ed States, would have enti­tled them. White­ness, then, might be seen as no longer a guar­an­tee of lib­er­ty and mas­tery, and so the prospect of the Cir­cass­ian Lady offered the sub­tle thrills of dan­ger and ambi­gu­i­ty. Even more sub­ver­sive­ly, the very idea of white women as sex­u­al slaves must have pre­sent­ed a tit­il­lat­ing object to the imag­i­na­tion, at least for white men. “The Cir­cass­ian Lady” there­fore lit­er­al­ly embod­ied a taboo.

This last point helps to explain the cos­tume of the Cir­cass­ian Ladies in the sideshow: their out­fits were inven­tions, hav­ing noth­ing to do with the actu­al cloth­ing of women from the Cau­ca­sus region. What the “Cir­cass­ian” cos­tume did do was invoke a cer­tain Ori­en­tal­ism, a hint of the harem and the seraglio. It offered the view­er an oppor­tu­ni­ty to view, and stare at, a sex­u­al­ized white woman and to imag­ine her pos­si­ble fate as a slave were she not “spared” it by appear­ing in the sideshow. (Although we must remem­ber that this was a fan­ta­sy: the “Cir­cass­ian Ladies” were per­form­ers play­ing a part.) The cos­tume did much to accent both exoti­cism and sex­u­al­i­ty by using strange cuts, fab­rics, jew­el­ry, and embroi­dery, and often by expos­ing arms, legs, and busts in ways that would oth­er­wise have been out of bounds for a white Vic­to­ri­an woman. How inten­tion­al this expo­sure was is evi­dent in the por­trait of Zublia Aggolia: in high mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, one can see that the pho­tog­ra­ph­er has retouched the neg­a­tive to accen­tu­ate the cleav­age of her bust—something that would nev­er occur in an ordi­nary por­trait of a Vic­to­ri­an “lady.” But at the same time, at her throat, just above the bust, hang­ing like a pro­tec­tive tal­is­man, lies a large, ornate cru­ci­fix, an item com­mon to Cir­cass­ian por­traits. The cru­ci­fix also shows up in Powers’s stat­ue The Greek Slave, where it can be seen, along with her removed clothes, just beneath her hand on the post on which she leans. As with Powers’s Greek slave, the pre­sumed Chris­t­ian faith of the Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty puts into play anoth­er para­dox: the sex­u­al­ized Oth­er who is nev­er­the­less both con­tained and made vir­tu­ous by her deep faith, despite her ter­ri­ble fate.

The charged ambi­gu­i­ty of the Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty, strad­dling sex­u­al trans­gres­sion and reli­gious tran­scen­dence, marks this type of per­son with a cer­tain mys­ti­cal val­ue ground­ed in her freak­ish white­ness. Sym­bol­ic and only bare­ly covert sex­u­al­iza­tion seems to have thrived in the lim­i­nal space of the sideshow freaks, as in this por­trait of a snake charmer:

snakewomansm for essay

snakewomansmrev for essay

R. S. Reynolds, sub­ject unknown (snake charmer), carte-de-vis­ite, front and reverse (cir­ca 1865), col­lec­tion of the author; this image is a com­pos­ite, formed from a pho­to­graph and ink draw­ing, and repho­tographed for repro­duc­tion and sale; note the com­bi­na­tion of exot­ic, trop­i­cal loca­tion with a lady clothed in the (rather out-of-place!) gar­ments of a respectable white­ness.

The mys­ti­cal sym­bol­ism of a freak­ish white­ness seems to have been even more accen­tu­at­ed in the case of some albi­nos, the “whitest” per­sons of all, who adopt­ed the cachet of mys­te­ri­ous pow­ers, such as mind read­ing, as a fea­ture of their sideshow acts:

mindreaderadjusted copy 2
Ober­müller and Kern, “Miss Mil­lie La Mar, Mind Read­er,” cab­i­net card (cir­ca 1890), col­lec­tion of the author.

This comes full cir­cle in the por­trait below of Aggie Zolu­tia, rep­re­sent­ing the high­est pos­si­ble pitch of a fetishized white­ness: an albi­no Cir­cass­ian. Aggie also wears the cru­ci­fix, just above a low neck­line, and she seems to rel­ish the pose of this per­sona, play­ing it with con­scious irony by mim­ic­k­ing the actu­al pose of the small bronze shep­herdess on the table beside her. What might be par­tic­u­lar­ly strik­ing to the mod­ern view­er, again, is the big hair, which looks so much like the “Afro” of the late 1960s and 1970s, then as much sym­bol of Black Pow­er as a fash­ion state­ment.

Mak­er unknown, Aggie Zolu­tia, carte-de-vis­ite (cir­ca 1875), col­lec­tion of Steven Bolin.

It is not mere­ly arbi­trary to com­pare the Cir­cass­ian hair­style and the Afro. We have to remem­ber that the explo­sion of frizzed hair in the por­traits of “Cir­cass­ian” women was an entire­ly arti­fi­cial effect, both cos­met­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly: it had to be cre­at­ed with beer sham­poo and teas­ing comb; it had noth­ing to do with how actu­al Cir­cass­ian women wore their hair. All the more remark­able is that the Afro of the 1960s was to a large extent a sym­bol of rebel­lion against the norm then for many blacks, name­ly, straight­en­ing the hair to look more “white”; with the Cir­cas­sians, we have a near­ly reverse effect: frizzing the hair to appear more oth­er, while still remain­ing iden­ti­fi­ably white. The untamed hair evoked exoti­cism; it served as a mark­er that this woman, who oth­er­wise appeared entire­ly white, was in fact some­thing Oth­er. Oth­er fea­tures sug­gest­ed this Oth­er­ness, such as the cloth­ing. There is also the fact that so many “Cir­cass­ian” women’s stage names began with “Z”: the let­ter itself is large­ly for­eign to Eng­lish and Amer­i­can names—almost none begin with it. Also pecu­liar is how many of the “Cir­cas­sians” have names begin­ning with a com­bi­na­tion of  “Z” and “A” or “A” and “Z”—Zublia Aggolia, Zalum­ma Agra, Aggie Zolutia—as if they were the alpha and omega of white­ness. Fur­ther­more, white view­ers would have had one very strik­ing point of com­par­i­son for sup­pos­ed­ly out­landish frizzy hair: this was the hair tex­ture they would attribute to black peo­ple. This is con­firmed by the por­tray­al of oth­er “types” in the cir­cus sideshows of the peri­od, such as this “Egypt­ian” (anoth­er per­formed per­sona):

Charles Eisen­mann, “Zumiya the Egypt­ian, Age 20,” carte-de-vis­ite, front and reverse (cir­ca 1870s), col­lec­tion of Greg French.

So here we land in yet anoth­er seem­ing para­dox: the puta­tive­ly purest, most pri­mor­dial, most beau­ti­ful form of the white race, the Cir­cass­ian, is con­struct­ed to share, how­ev­er sub­tly, its sig­na­ture feature—a wild mane of hair—with Africans. In this way, the purest “white” is made an Other—by asso­ci­at­ing it, how­ev­er sub­con­scious­ly, with white Amer­i­cans’ phys­i­o­log­i­cal stereo­types about blacks. And we can account for this by con­nect­ing the dots: both African slaves and Cir­cass­ian slaves were sub­ject to sex­u­al exploita­tion, even if the lat­ter were sup­pos­ed­ly res­cued from that fate, and this is the point of con­tact that played so pow­er­ful­ly on white Amer­i­cans’ imag­i­na­tion: wild­ness, even a con­tained and con­strained wild­ness, sug­gest­ed that the sex­u­al exploita­tion was in some sense nat­ur­al to the enslaved women’s own instincts, char­ac­ter, and desires. African women were rou­tine­ly por­trayed as sex­u­al­ly las­civ­i­ous, and there­fore in some sense will­ing and com­plic­it in their sex­u­al exploita­tion. Sure­ly that is part of what was so tit­il­lat­ing to the white male view­er of the Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty as a type: her nar­row­ly avoid­ed fate as a harem slave, her strange clothes, her exposed flesh, her half-mad hair all indi­cate an unin­hib­it­ed, if pub­licly exposed, even forced, sex­u­al­i­ty.

And yet, at the same time, because the Cir­cass­ian was thought to be the purest, most pri­mor­dial exem­plar of the white race, that may have led the white view­er to yet anoth­er thought: that the sex­u­al fate and the sex­u­al pro­cliv­i­ties of the “Cir­cass­ian Lady” (no true “lady” by Vic­to­ri­an stan­dards because of these very pro­cliv­i­ties) might just as well be those of any giv­en “Amer­i­can Lady,” who must be, after all, the racial descen­dant of the woman on exhib­it. And that, in turn, would sug­gest that the white Amer­i­can “lady” was, at bot­tom, in her unadorned, uncul­tured nature, no dif­fer­ent from the Circassian—and so no dif­fer­ent from the African. From there, the viewer—primarily the white male viewer—could con­tem­plate a fur­ther ques­tion: whether the sideshow depicts an erot­ic truth that is or ought to be more than a sideshow in ordi­nary domes­tic life. Add to this the fact that the “Cir­cass­ian Ladies” were no Cir­cas­sians at all but ordi­nary women cos­tumed and frizzed to “pass” for a pure­ly invent­ed “Cir­cass­ian” type, and the ambi­gu­i­ties rise to an even greater height: these trans­gres­sive women were not the Oth­er at all but the white view­ers’ own kind. The self as Oth­er, and the Oth­er as self: in this lim­i­nal zone, which one defines the mean­ing of white­ness, of free­dom, and of accept­able sex­u­al license?

But the very appear­ance of the Cir­cass­ian Lady in the cir­cus sideshow, along­side oth­er human types des­ig­nat­ed “freaks,” must have blunt­ed all such ques­tions. P. T. Bar­num per­fect­ed the sideshow as a form of exploita­tion and enter­tain­ment, imi­tat­ed by hun­dreds of car­ni­vals and cir­cus­es through­out the nation, that allowed the vis­i­tor to depart from a cus­tom­ary world of lim­its and expec­ta­tions, but only in a tem­po­rary way, and in a con­text that marked the expe­ri­ence as deci­sive­ly excep­tion­al, ques­tion­able, and quite pos­si­bly fraudulent—in a word, freak­ish. The very nature of the sideshow allowed the view­er to dis­place any gen­uine­ly dis­com­fort­ing ques­tions into the realm of ambi­gu­i­ty, where they could then be safe­ly bun­dled up and for­got­ten, just as we today con­front our fears in the safe­ty of a hor­ror movie or a roller-coast­er ride: as mere enter­tain­ment, a thrill to expe­ri­ence and then purge as at bot­tom unre­al. Such adven­tures bring no last­ing insight or trans­for­ma­tion; quite the reverse, in fact: they tend to shunt a dis­qui­et­ing expe­ri­ence or ques­tion off into a lim­bo that has the effect of mak­ing it dis­ap­pear from active reflec­tion. Tit­il­la­tion should not be con­fused with illu­mi­na­tion. In this sense, the sideshow served as an inoc­u­la­tion against gen­uine ques­tions that, if giv­en a real voice, might have unset­tled the pre­vail­ing cat­e­gories and assump­tions of human clas­si­fi­ca­tions such as race and gen­der. The sideshow there­fore only exploit­ed the ambi­gu­i­ties; it nev­er tru­ly chal­lenged them, and the Cir­cass­ian Lady nev­er real­ly allowed the Vic­to­ri­an world to call into ques­tion the divid­ing lines of race, free­dom, and sex­u­al self-pos­ses­sion that she embod­ied, if only as a per­for­mance of an imag­i­nary human type.

But don’t we now have a choice? The first pho­to­graph of a Cir­cass­ian Lady I found led me on a jour­ney of inquiry whose strange­ness I would nev­er have guessed. Who would have thought that this mad explo­sion of hair was con­nect­ed to the racial the­o­ries of the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies by way of the fun-house mir­ror of sideshow exploita­tion? Had we under­stood that, we might know now that Blumenbach’s divi­sion of the human species into five dif­fer­ent “colors”—with the Cir­cass­ian Cau­casians as the purest white, the most orig­i­nal and true of them all—is sim­ply false, a fan­ta­sy of Euro­pean nar­cis­sism about the pure ori­gins of the white race. Still, we might not see how laugh­ably absurd that white mythol­o­gy is until con­front­ed with it in the form of the Cir­cass­ian Lady.

More to the point, isn’t it just as absurd that now, near­ly 250 years after Blu­men­bach, we still refer to “white” peo­ple as “Cau­casians”? After all, there is no more real­i­ty to the des­ig­na­tion “Cau­casian” than there is to the frizzed hair­style of the Cir­cass­ian Ladies. In fact, the “Cau­casian” label is more absurd, and more per­ni­cious, because by now we real­ly should know bet­ter. Why not just give up using this freak­ish label, whose only real­i­ty has been a staged real­i­ty, as a per­formed char­ac­ter in a cir­cus sideshow? That would be a fit­ting end to a term for white­ness worn out long ago.

But can we real­ly choose to give up such a term, one that is so inter­twined with our his­to­ry and col­lec­tive ways of see­ing that some of us still use the label “Cau­casian” as a way of iden­ti­fy­ing our­selves and oth­ers, even when we know, or at least ought to know, that it is a fan­ta­sy? Of course, indi­vid­u­als may make that choice in the way they use every­day lan­guage, but that choice is made more dif­fi­cult to the extent that gov­ern­ment offi­cials still employ “Cau­casian” as a legit­i­mate iden­ti­fy­ing label, as Shaila Dewan has point­ed out in a recent essay, “Has ‘Cau­casian’ Lost Its Mean­ing?, in the New York Times: Jus­tice Antho­ny M. Kennedy saw fit to use the term in the piv­otal affir­ma­tive action deci­sion, Fish­er v. Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin; on the very first page, in the state­ment of facts, Jus­tice Kennedy describes Abi­gail Noel Fish­er, who sued the uni­ver­si­ty for dis­crim­i­na­tion, as the “Peti­tion­er, who is Cau­casian …” This was June of 2014. As Dewan points out, the word Cau­casian “gives dis­cus­sions of race a weird tech­no­crat­ic grav­i­tas, as when the police insist that you step out of your ‘vehi­cle’ instead of your car.” As her arti­cle makes clear, this pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic dis­course, which makes the pre­tense of objec­tive neu­tral­i­ty, actu­al­ly masks the fact that peo­ple are uncom­fort­able talk­ing about race,  espe­cial­ly what counts as “white.” This prud­ery about race con­tributes to the con­cep­tu­al iner­tia about race in our soci­ety, because the inabil­i­ty to speak open­ly about the arbi­trary and ambigu­ous nature of white­ness helps hold in place the “col­or” scheme of racial cat­e­gories, with “white” its priv­i­leged and sup­pos­ed­ly unam­bigu­ous sta­tus at the top.

The writer and jour­nal­ist Ta-Nehisi Coates has empha­sized the poten­tial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of such con­struct­ed con­cepts in an essay, “Good Peo­ple, Racist Peo­ple”:

Last night I had the lux­u­ry of sit­ting and talk­ing with the bril­liant his­to­ri­an Bar­bara Fields. One point she makes that very few Amer­i­cans under­stand is that racism is a cre­ation. You read Edmund Morgan’s work and actu­al­ly see racism being inscribed in the law and the coun­try chang­ing as a result.

If we accept that racism is a cre­ation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it like­ly must be destroyed by meth­ods kin to cre­ation. Racism was cre­at­ed by pol­i­cy. It will like­ly only be ulti­mate­ly destroyed by pol­i­cy.

By “pol­i­cy,” we must under­stand not only the three hundred–plus years of law and gov­ern­men­tal action that estab­lished cat­e­gories of human beings fit for enslave­ment and oth­er forms of oppres­sion but also the shared con­cep­tu­al and lin­guis­tic her­itage that has formed the mean­ing of race in our world and that has worked its way into every­thing from every­day talk to offi­cial forms and the pro­nounce­ments of the Supreme Court. Our choic­es about lan­guage are nev­er just pri­vate. They are also con­strained by col­lec­tive deci­sions, both con­scious and unaware, about what things mean; as such, those deci­sions can mold wide­spread beliefs and atti­tudes as well as gov­ern­men­tal pol­i­cy in the nar­row sense.

So can we retire not just the fan­tas­ti­cal label “Cau­casian” as a name for white­ness but also the very notion of the human divi­sions that con­sti­tute “white­ness” itself, as well as the whole umbrel­la con­cept of race as “col­or,” in which “white,” “black,” “brown,” “yel­low,” and “red” find their place?

While indi­vid­u­als may choose to refuse these labels, the sheer fact is that these cat­e­gories are so deeply engraved into our ways of see­ing that they are even embraced by those vic­tim­ized by that his­to­ry, in part pre­cise­ly because they were vic­tim­ized as such and by that his­to­ry of race. To deny that race mat­ters, to deny that we do see col­or, as Stephen Col­bert often does as an act of par­o­dy, would be to deny that the his­to­ry of racism has had and con­tin­ues to have its pro­found effect; such denial would only rein­force white priv­i­lege as the default. We are caught in the Catch-22 of his­to­ry: only if we acknowl­edge the his­tor­i­cal and con­struct­ed mean­ing of race can we face up to the ongo­ing bur­den of that his­to­ry in our present. We can­not just shrug off this his­to­ry by indi­vid­ual fiat.

And yet we can com­bat the most absurd aspects of racial nomen­cla­ture. As a name for white­ness, “Cau­casian” is among the most per­ni­cious because of its role as a label for the purest, most orig­i­nal race. We can refuse to use “Cau­casian” to describe peo­ple, we can point out its absur­di­ty when­ev­er pos­si­ble, and we can insist that the gov­ern­ment not use it in any offi­cial capac­i­ty. “Cau­casian” should become odi­ous as a name for white­ness, just as “Aryan” already is now.

In an aston­ish­ing his­tor­i­cal irony, when the police gave their first press con­fer­ence in the man­hunt for the two men sus­pect­ed of per­pe­trat­ing the Boston Marathon bomb­ing, an offi­cer iden­ti­fied one sus­pect as “a light-skinned or Cau­casian male.”  This time, though, the peo­ple in ques­tion actu­al­ly were Cau­casians: they came from the Cau­ca­sus as mod­ern refugees from the age-old con­flicts there. Per­haps it will take an event as revolt­ing and trau­mat­ic as the Marathon bomb­ing to final­ly uncou­ple the name “Cau­casian” from white­ness and lay it to rest.


Blu­men­bach, Johann Friedrich, and Hunter, John, On the Nat­ur­al Vari­ety of Mankind in The Anthro­po­log­i­cal Trea­tis­es of Johann Friedrich Blu­men­bach, trans. Thomas Benyshe (Lon­don: Long­man, Green, Long­man, Roberts, and Green, 1865). Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ger­man in 1775.

Bog­dan, Robert, Freak Show: Pre­sent­ing Human Odd­i­ties for Amuse­ment and Prof­it (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1988).

Crane, Sylvia E., Gree­nough, Pow­ers and Craw­ford, Amer­i­can Sculp­tors in Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry Italy (Coral Gables, Flori­da: Uni­ver­si­ty of Mia­mi Press, 1972).

Frost, Lin­da, “The Cir­cass­ian Beau­ty and the Cir­cass­ian Slave: Gen­der, Impe­ri­al­ism, and Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Enter­tain­ment,” in Nev­er One Nation: Freaks, Sav­ages, and White­ness in US Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, 1850–1877 (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2005).

Wun­der, Richard, Hiram Pow­ers: Ver­mont sculp­tor, 1805–1873 (Newark: Uni­ver­si­ty of Delaware Press, 1991).


I am grate­ful for the detailed com­ments and valu­able sug­ges­tions pro­vid­ed by Lin­da Frost when this essay was under review. What­ev­er faults remain, of course, are my respon­si­bil­i­ty.

*Updat­ed April 19, 2013, adding every­thing after “But dont we now have a choice?” Minor cor­rec­tions made on May 22, 2013. Updat­ed on July 7, 2013, to includ­ed a dis­cus­sion of the essay “Has ‘Cau­casian’ Lost Its Mean­ing?” by Shaila Dewan. Updat­ed on Feb­ru­ary 8, 2014, to dis­cuss recent efforts by the Cir­cass­ian com­mu­ni­ty to protest the Cir­cass­ian geno­cide and the host­ing, by Rus­sia, of the Olympic Games in Sochi, the site of the Cir­cas­sians final defeat and mass depor­ta­tion in 1864.